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FIRST-PERSON: First Amendment towers

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–The question of what to build on the World Trade Center footprint is still open. A recent cover of The New Republic featured a fanciful, glass and steel monstrosity and the title, “Towers of Babel: How not to Rebuild Ground Zero.” Sketched proposals have filled the media and the inbox of the design committee. It may be too late (Newsweek reports that they’ve narrowed the choices to two), but I thought I’d pitch in with my own suggestion.

It’s inspired by a recent visit to Manhattan. Walking west, a few blocks north of Times Square, I saw the Sony Jumbotron (23.5′ x 32′), hard at work, flashing images of various commercial products to the masses below (est. 870,000 a day). Why not use that technology to adorn two new towers? But instead of advertising, these screens could extrapolate the First Amendment, whose principles are so inimical to the Islamic states which bred the terrorists of 9/11 — “You can knock down a building or two, but you can’t knock down our freedoms.”

I take this to be a thoroughly Baptist proposal, for we are much to thank for the First Amendment. Baptist Roger Williams fled Puritan repression in Massachusetts to lay the groundwork for a colony (Rhode Island) so free that “even a Jew” could worship in peace. Baptist John Leland (for whom the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission building in Washington, D.C., is named) persuaded/pressured James Madison to insist on constitutional protection for religious liberty.

Imagine, if you will, the reconstruction of buildings similar to those lost. On each side of each tower, eight sides in all, affix a Jumbotron. Round the clock, these screens could display a succession of images, changing them every few seconds. (Participating organizations could submit pictures on computer disk, in stipulated format.)

The four faces of the first tower could focus on religious liberty in all its flower:

1. Photographs of the church buildings, synagogues, temples, mosques and other religious meeting places in America (e.g., the Ford Road mosque in Dearborn, Mich.; the Baha’i temple in Wilmette, Ill.; West End Presbyterian Church in Arkadelphia, Ark.).

2. Photographs of the educational and charitable programs of religious organizations, whether congregation, regional body or general denomination (e.g., a Salvation Army soup kitchen; Brandeis University)

3. Covers or front pages of religious periodicals (e.g., Indiana Baptist; Christian Century).

4. Congregational, denominational and para-church logos (e.g., B’nai B’rith’s menorah; the United Methodist flame and cross; the river bend and cross of FBC New Orleans).

The second tower could rehearse the secular freedoms named in the First Amendment:

1. Front pages of American newspapers (e.g., Arkansas Democrat-Gazette; Fresno Bee) and the covers of American periodicals (e.g., The Nation; Field and Stream; Fortune).

2. The covers of American books (e.g., the “Left Behind” series; “Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution”).

3. Logos of America’s secular nonprofit organizations (e.g., the
Yosemite tree of Sierra Club; the Cato Institute’s George Washington; Special Olympics’ circle of shining figures).

4. Promotional photos from America’s electronic, recording and broadcast media — and from the performing arts (e.g., a U2 CD cover; a studio shot of Rush Limbaugh).

The same standards of decency used for New York billboards would hold, and no image would appear for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don’t like the shot of Howard Stern at the mike, wait just a moment and you’ll see Sean Hannity at his mike. If the cover of Rolling Stone turns you off, it soon gives way to the cover of Saturday Evening Post.

Yes, it’s messy, but it’s America, the freedom-loving America that Baptists love and al Queda hates. I suppose a whole economy could grow up around Lower Manhattan circle tours, giving tourists a 360-degree view of the images. And wouldn’t it be great to have shots of little country churches from the heartland playing for all to see in the Big Apple?

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

You may bomb a building, but you can’t bomb that.
Coppenger is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church. You can contact him at [email protected].

    About the Author

  • Mark Coppenger